Tuesday 5 May 2020

Article: Looking back at City of God

Despite my recent viewing being an umpteenth watch of City of God, my reaction is still the same. From the opening credits to the final moments, I was pulled back to when I used to work at my local cinema and I dragged my friends and co-workers to see a Brazilian Gangster coming of age film that they have never heard of. I saw a five-star review of the film in the now-defunct Hotdog magazine. To this day the best film magazine, I had the pleasure of reading. The magazine hyped the film as a Brazilian Goodfellas (1990), which was enough for me to lure my pals into the feature. As the “film guy” of the group, they never truly trusted my opinion on movies. They still don’t.

The film guy came good in this case. We all left the film rocked by what we just saw. Not just due to being the perfect age (18) to be blown away by a gritty, gun-toting journey into the favelas of Brazil. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s piece is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. The Goodfellas comparisons from critics were clear and understandable, but the film’s signifiers came from a different place. They bought a new and eclectic vibrancy to proceedings. The way the film exploded on to the screen was simply something else. Watching the film now, it still hums with energy. 

A Docufiction adapted from Paulo Lins’ 1997 novel of the same film, the film throws its viewers into an intertangled mesh of organised crime beginning in the late sixties and continuing throughout the seventies. We’re guided through the film’s narrative by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), as he navigates his way around the drug wars which inhabit the Cidade De Deus suburb where he lives. The film wouldn’t feel too out of place with the criminal coming of age films of Made in Britain (1982), Scum (1979), or Neds (2010). However, while the mentioned films have moments equally as shocking in their way, none have the same vibrancy that takes place here. It’s a film that truly illuminates, not only shedding light on the unlawful activity of Brazil’s notorious favela but doing so with a spark of electricity. High contrast, richly saturated cinematography, quick sharp cross-cut editing, and converging stories. Even now rewatching the film again, I found myself astounded by the breathless way directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund inform the story. It’s a shorter film than Goodfellas or The Godfather (1972), but it holds a similar richness. From its expressionistic close-ups to its Funkadelic soundtrack. It is an ugly story beautifully told. 

If there is one thing I forgot about the film, it’s how horny it is. From the first meeting between the young hoodlum Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) and Bernice (Bernice) to the death of one character (and the war which comes later from it) hinging partly on the sexual frustration and machismo of a character. Isn’t it funny that a film writer who co-hosts an erotic thriller podcast would note this aspect of the film? That said, this is a film that has no qualms over showing beautifully tanned bodies, often encased in sweat. One reason why this film writer felt so aware of the film’s libido, is because it feels like 18 years on, films have only now seemingly reached a point where they are more undaunted with ebony bodies and sensuality. Yay progression.

Films are no less violent than they were back in 2003 and yet the volatile acts that occur within City of God still feel like a sobering slap to the chops. City of God crafts an environment where poverty and struggle breed corruption. Existence is cheap. The emotional tug which comes from the film’s bleak set pieces often stems from just how young the victims and killers are. The grim fatalism which hangs over the death of groovy playboy Benny. The still horrific hand or foot sequence which befouls some kids who may not have even reached double figures in age. The despair that loiters in the dark alleyways is set against the modest desires of the film’s more amiable characters. To remind us of the previous paragraph, so many of these guys should be out trying to get phone numbers.

The films of Fernando Meirelles often portray an element of innocence lost. Something that the kids in City of God were rapidly losing while teenagers like myself and our first world problems held on to. Granted I am sure many more films have done similar. Let us not be so naïve that I knew nothing about the world at large. But there was something about this film’s urgency despite being a period piece struck me. Something that Meirelles did further on in his career with the likes of The Two Popes (2019), a fictionalised account of a meeting between the incumbent, conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and the liberal future Pope Francis. City of God was a film that blunted the fairy-tale coming of age that I started to notice in American films at the time. Films that were quick to mark growing pains as a passing awkward phase. It expressed a greater world in which young people at my age were inhabited by people who would not be so lucky. 

This is probably why the film is such a formative one for me. That first watch of City of God came at a time when I so close to the age of the characters. With much of my time watching coming of age films and television where the pubescent struggles were somewhat “safer”. It’s understandable to see how the film's violence could provide a stigma to those who live the favelas of Brazil, it’s also films like City of God which broadened the horizons of a viewer like myself. It’s a film that never felt exploitive but impassioned. It tells its story without the kind of romanticism that the likes of Coppola or Scorsese invoke. A period piece with a powerful immediacy.  

City of God wasn’t just a film that became a small bridge to me and my friends in terms of film watching (I also got turned one of my same friends on to Duncan Jones’ brilliant Moon). For me, it’s still a marvel of bold cinematic filmmaking. You don’t need to hold a degree in the socio-politics of Brazil to get what’s at stake, but it does prime a viewer for what is witnessed in films such as Elite Squad (2007). It’s also no surprise there was a boom of production filming shortly around the time the film was released with 45 productions being completed around the same time. People were seeing the potential of creating new challenging works with different areas of the world. The film introduced me to a director whose future work on similar themes of corruption and exploitation have been executed with a comparable amount of skill. 

City of God was one of the films that started the odyssey. The gateway to different and challenging experiences with film. A strange liberation in watching teenagers who we’re trapped in hell. A film that would make how you look at other movies differently. I still marvel at the film's rich use of technique and inventiveness in its intricate storytelling, but as a piece of cinema, I was able to sit with my friends in a dark cinema and hold a shared cinematic experience. It’s also why I find the warm reception at the cinema of the likes of the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) to also be a large positive. When World Cinema is given the distribution and push, it finds the audience. It makes the connection. Then film guys get to sleep soundly at night. 

Article: Up All Night

"Kids, your grandma always used to say to me, "Nothing good happens after 2:00 a.m.," and she was right. When 2:00 a.m. rolls around, just go home and go to sleep" – Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother 

After spending a lot of my younger life in office jobs and still being in one now, the idea of living for the weekend is a common and desirable aim. Whatever you do in your glass and concrete cage it matters little when the clock hits quitting time. It’s your time to spend. It’s precious. This is clearly obvious for Paul (Griffin Dunne), a word processor and protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s spiraling midnight farce After Hours. The opening moments are so wryly put together. Paul’s wandering eye gaze over the seemingly never-ending piles of paper being carried around to nowhere. His colleague: Lloyd is a new blood trainee who bores him with his mundane chatter about not wanting to be stuck in this humdrum world forever. We all know the type. Especially when you work in an office in your mid-twenties.  It’s clear Paul wants to break free from the shackles of the working day. Very soon the gates that keep him trapped will open and he’ll get his chance of freedom. The trouble is after tonight will he really want it? 

After Hours is usually the first film of the various movies I think of when I hear the overly recycled argument that “Marty only makes gangster films”. Such is the quarrel that I’ve heard for nearly 20 years. After Hours is as old as me, so god knows how long others have had to listen to such lazy claims. Paul this lonely, bored office drone, meets a slightly kooky, bohemian girl, Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) in a diner after work. They bond over the book he’s reading. She’s a little off, but not as much as the weird cashier who they both laugh at. Paul is clearly looking to spice up his life with a lady. Forget about his job for a bit. Looking for an escape from the monotony, it seems there might be something between the two of them. She invites him back to her place in Soho. She lives with a punk artist who makes paperweights. He could have one. Although he’s sure that’s not what she’s inviting him for. That said. What’s the worst that could happen?

In revisiting After Hours, I couldn’t help but snicker at the glee the film has in hiding everything it can from Paul who hasn’t got the facilities for the Soho life. He is not supposed to be there. He does not fit in and it shows in the conversations, the glances. The film isn’t a large-scale clash over social culture, but After Hours makes it clear that Paul is the kind of button-pusher that shouldn’t be hanging around Soho at night, least he found him plummeting into bohemian purgatory. It's not really paranoia if they're really out to get you and the clues circle all around him while he stumbles throughout his urban nightmare. 

Often considered a “lesser” Scorsese, it was a project that the director took up after admitting that he was out of touch with a new blockbuster led world. Both Raging Bull (1980) and The King of Comedy (1982) had failed financially and Scorsese’s pet project The Last Temptation of Christ was abandoned by Paramount at that point. With this as the background, Scorsese moved towards smaller more independent fare. 

Smaller? Yes. Independent? Indeed. Lesser? Not by a long shot. Rewatching After Hours only highlighted how much of an anaconda of a movie it is. Full of the high running anxiety which bleeds through so many of his movies. Watching Paul squirm and struggle after each minor inconvenience wraps around him and becomes a larger problem is something of a macabre joy. Looking back at the one-two punch of this and the King of Comedy, I am fascinated by the amount of dark humour Scorsese gets out of the pervading menace of the urban night dwellers of the New York streets. Like Greek Theatre, Scorsese sees both the tragedy and the comedy in machismo. He still toys with masculinity in later movies (GoodFellas, The Wolf of Wall Street) however it is within earlier works such as this that feel somewhat more defined. Possibly because Paul is only one step up from a two-bit putz. Henry Hill and Jordan Belfort both have the charm to spare. It’s easy to see why people consider their actions in their respective movies to be glamorised. In After Hours, Paul is not so lucky. Late on in the movie, Paul witnesses a murder in a nearby apartment window. “I bet they’ll blame it on me.” He remarks. The crazy thing is, he is so deep into the inner-city sludge, a lot of it his own doing, we would more than likely agree. 

After Hours falls into the strange small sub-category of films in which our protagonists often stuck in a rut in their regular lives, endure madcap hijinks over the course of one night. Other features include the likes of John Landis’ cameo loaded Into the Night (1985), Doug Liman’s kinetic three-storied Go (1999), and perhaps my favourite movie House Party (1990). It’s a sub-genre I find myself enjoying due to the unpredictability that comes with the territory. Paraphrasing from the opening quote nothing good happens after 2 am. The lure, however, is seeing what happens to *these guys* at that time. Watching the cranks start to turn and the oddballs slide out of the shadows, with everything falling under a tightly wrapped cage of controlled chaos. It is the type of film that allows filmmakers to flex their muscles with economy and pace. If Scorsese was feeling frustrated at the idea of blockbuster movie making at the time, he conquers it here with a film that still harbours all his visual tics and themes. Hell, it even allows him to throw in shots reminiscent of the short silent Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). 

New Jersey writer Joseph Minion seemed to have a passion for the oddballs that wander New York City at night. Along with After Hours, his other feature screenplay of note is the Nicolas Cage vampire vehicle Vampire’s Kiss. Watching Cage as a literary agent slowly descend into hallucinatory madness is eventful, yet despite Vampire Kiss’s holding comparable surreal darkness to After Hours, along with similar anxieties towards women and yuppiedom, Minion’s work holds far more presence and control under the gaze of Scorsese and his crew. Vampire’s Kiss lacks the punch in the storytelling that the likes of Scorsese provides, allowing an overacting and irritating Cage lord all over the material. Amusingly it is no surprise that one of Cage’s best (and more subdued) performances comes in Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Another film which deals with New York in the dead of night. It’s also a film that flopped commercially yet was well received by most who did see it. Additionally, there are no gangsters in sight. 

It’s interesting reading reviews of After Hours (Paul Attanasio and Vincent Carnby are examples) which state that the film “fails to satisfy”, that in itself brings around a small measure of humour. The film itself is almost entirely wrapped with male anxiety and the wish to please and satisfy women. The amusement comes from watching this office type flounder in front of all these women who are clearly more creative and process more control in their destinies. To quote The Rolling Stones “You can’t always get what you want” and that within this turn of events is not only funny but satisfying in its own way  

It would be wise to take note that the demise of one character does come off as unjust from a feminist reading standpoint, helping confirm what many already feel about Scorsese as a male director. Particularly after recent discourse over Anna Paquin’s character’s silence within The Irishman. However, I cannot say that this one aspect confirms the entire whole of the twisted universe of After Hours, in which the other female characters hold their own spikiness. Scorsese has never been the type of director I would look towards for certain female representation and I’ll try not to go back into the likes of his filmography to try and retcon the matter. However, I do find the women that appear in After Hours to be entertaining and sharp in the film's own special way, even if they are not the focus. Linda Fiorentino’s Kiki, for instance, may not feature in many scenes, but her “fuck you” attitude coming 9 years before The Last Seduction (1994) is certainly holds its charms.

The spotlight is however on Paul who holds a type of guilt which is common with Scorsese films of its ilk. Paul’s “blame” comment is funny because while his punishment doesn’t fit the crime, the film suggests this simps arrogance within the earlier segment of the film; courting Marcy (Roseanna Arquette) while hitting on rock chick Kiki, when Marcy steps out briefly, is more than enough to set the wheels of fate turning. It is the type of butterfly effect turn that has the film in common with Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991). Someone is going to pay for that somehow. It is little surprise that The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Goodfellas (1990) are quick to get picked on when looking at Scorsese's work. Their asshole protagonists have little care in guilt or shame, which can make them dangerously glamourous to some. If only Paul was as brazen, he was in the earlier scenes. Then again, it’s clear he doesn’t know that nothing good happens after hours. He should have just gone home and slept.